By Kari Mutu
Nigerian-American science-fiction author Nnedi Okorafor’s space-age fantasy novella Binti is out of this world.
Sixteen-year-old Binti comes from the small, semi-nomadic Himba people living in the deserts of northern Namibia.
Smart and mathematically intelligent, she is also the first in her community to be accepted into Oomza University, the most prominent institution in the greater galaxy. It is located on a different planet and takes in only the best students.
But her family are against her going to university. They expect Binti to follow in the family trade of master harmonisers and makers of astrolabes, high-tech astronomical devises.
Determined to pursue further education, Binti escapes from home in the dead of night knowing that she could forever be banished by her people. She boards a spaceship that will take her from Earth, across thousands of galactic miles, to join university.
Mistrust and fear characterise the relations between different nations. Binti stands apart with her dark skin lathered in red ochre and wearing the traditional skirts, metal anklets and the thickly plaited hair of her people.
The pale-skinned majority Khoush people look down upon the Himba as backward. The Himba cling to their ways and traditions, mistrusting anybody from outside their community.
Despite the awkward situation on board, Binti settles in to an uneasy truce with her future college mates and all is going relatively well. Then the convoy is attacked by Meduse, a population of powerful and deadly alien creatures that resemble giant jellyfish. The Meduse have a long-standing grudge against Oomza University. Everybody on board the spaceship is killed except Binti.
She survives, thanks to a powerful talisman she carried from her homeland. But her life is in danger. By joining Oomza University she has become a target of the ferocious Meduse, who are determined to destroy the institution and its planet. Binti must use all her wits and mathematical genius to devise a plan to save the university and her own life.
Binti is a fast-moving story with moments of surprise, tension, and unlikely friendships that keep you captivated to the end.
Okorafor often draws inspiration from her Nigerian roots when writing. For this book, an experience with jellyfish during a trip to the United Arab Emirates sparked the idea.
Binti’s adventure takes place in faraway galaxies reminiscent of the epic Star Wars movies, yet this is very much an Afrocentric tale.
There are so many angles to this novella and its new worlds that you wish it were a full-length novel. Okorafor’s vivid descriptions allow you to easily imagine the bizarre people and places.
I like that Okorafor combines futuristic fantasy with elements from real life, like the cultural practices of the indigenous Himba people.
Binti’s red otjize clay is more than just a cosmetic skin treatment, and the astrolabes were actual scientific instruments used by scholars of the Middle Ages. Throughout this extra-terrestrial escapade, we get glimpses of Namibia’s desert landscapes.
The portrayal of native African communities as possessing deep mathematical and scientific knowledge is pleasantly different from the usual culture-based paranormal that characterises African fantasy literature.
As you follow the narrator, you recognise a determined but conflicted young heroine trying to chart her own path in life, facing racial prejudice and culture conflict.
Her story echoes the experience of many immigrant African students triumphing over huge obstacles to attain an education.
Binti won the 2015 Nebulla Award and the 2016 Hugo Award for best novella, among several credits. The book is the first in a trilogy about the adventures of Binti.